I always think about Thoreau more this time of year. It was in summer when I first read Walden some twenty years ago, and in this prodigal season the notion of giving oneself unto the wilderness seems at least not entirely mad.
Fellow blogger Retriever offers some thoughts about Thoreau this morning, and like most she is ambivalent about him. But what troubles her is that he seems "self-conscious," "full of himself," even "adolescent." Maybe, but if so, any rebel or even any prophet is these things as well.
I have always felt some affinity with Thoreau, but have also found him remote and strange; he is that perplexing quantity, the unrepresentative guide. He was extremely focused and intense, but also narrow. He saw many values in life as commonly lived to be unnecessary and wasteful, but it is easy to feel this way when one experiences no need for such things. He felt no need for (or at least disavowed any need for), among countless other things, Beethoven, wine, sex, and children. He had no patience--no experience even perhaps--of the frailties and self-indulgencies that afflict the average Homo sapiens. He would have been the personal trainer from hell.
Indeed it is as secular prophet that I tend to see Thoreau. He had his eyes not on heaven of course, but upon a different world, a radically different kind of life, than most people in the history of humanity have been content to lead. A great redwood towering alone amid a desolate but intricately beautiful plain, he offered an ideal; one keeps the tree perpetually in mind, and turns around to gaze at it now and then while going about one's business, but few go to live there. He was too pure for us, too scrupulous and uncompromising, that asymptote we can never quite reach. He would not grant that there is not just one great Good in life, but a diversity of competing goods, and that is what makes the business of living so fiendishly difficult. Truth itself has rival goods.
Even Emerson, who travelled far indeed in the realms of thought, found Thoreau to be a distant destination. In his elegy for Thoreau, he wrote:
Thoreau was sincerity itself, and might fortify the convictions of prophets in the ethical laws by his holy living. It was an affirmative experience which refused to be set aside. A truth-speaker he, capable of the most deep and strict conversation; a physician to the wounds of any soul; a friend, knowing not only the secret of friendship, but almost worshipped by those few persons who resorted to him as their confessor and prophet, and knew the deep value of his mind and great heart. He thought that without religion or devotion of some kind nothing great was ever accomplished: and he thought that the bigoted sectarian had better bear this in mind.
His virtues, of course, sometimes ran into extremes. It was easy to trace to the inexorable demand on all for exact truth that austerity which made this willing hermit more solitary even than he wished. Himself of a perfect probity, he required not less of others. He had a disgust at crime, and no worldly success would cover it. He detected paltering as readily in dignified and prosperous persons as in beggars, and with equal scorn. Such dangerous frankness was in his dealing that his admirers called him "that terrible Thoreau," as if he spoke when silent, and was still present when he had departed. I think the severity of his ideal interfered to deprive him of a healthy sufficiency of human society.
A great tree, indeed. Emerson also quoted: "I love Henry," said one of his friends, "but I cannot like him; and as for taking his arm, I should as soon think of taking the arm of an elm-tree."